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It is time to draw a line in the sand. 2010 needs to see the demise of bland, insipid photography that are the equivalent of using IBM blue.

Like IBM blue, certain stock imagery has been so overused that they have become meaningless. It conveys no information of value and carry no positive emotional message. Take for example the website below:

The WellDyne website features a photograph of two businessmen shaking hands

The image provides no clue as to the nature of the website and appears to be little more than a placeholder to fill up space.

The only reason to resort to such hackneyed clichés is lazinesses. A designer has literally millions of gorgeous images available to them online and should also be capable of producing unique imagery of their own.

This lazy approach was summed up perfectly in the design below. The designer was so lazy he did not even manage to purchase the image (see the watermark from istockphoto).

Website using an unpurchased image.

The alternative

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not writing this with a sense of superiority. I have been just as guilty of falling back on clichés as anybody else. After all, when time and budget is limited, you don’t have the resources to commission your own photo shoot!

However, just because you are forced to use stock photography does not mean it has to look terrible. There are several techniques that can help avoid clichés even when time and budget are limited.

Use Illustration

Increasingly websites are using illustration instead of photography. Even stock illustration often conveys more character and personality than your average piece of stock photography.

The style of illustration used says something about the website and organisation behind it. Illustrations make a statement and do not necessarily need to appear childish, as many clients fear.

Hull Digital Live

Safarista Design

Image based on Soviet Russian style

Image of comic fish

Better integrate

Even when you choose to use stock photography there is no reason why it needs to be confined to a box! Instead seek ways to better integrate it with your design by breaking out of the grid. This can take even relatively poor photography and give it new life.

Brooklyn Fare Website

Avenue 91.1 website

Oklahoma Wesleyan University


Of course there are occasions when you are forced to work with poor photography. This typically happens when imagery is provided by the client or when the budget doesn’t allow anything other than the cheapest of stock imagery.

This is the point where you need to let your creativity run wild. Do not resign yourself to poor quality imagery, but rather enhance it using techniques as simple as a photoshop filter to as complex as a collage.

Suie Paparude website

Boutique website


The Nest

Pick images with punch

When you do have a choice of imagery make sure you select an image with punch.

When faced with an image library consisting of thousands of photos, it is easy to pick the first image that has the right subject matter. However remember, composition, colour and style make a huge difference.

Picture of a woman's face

Image of ornate costume

Image of the Festival of Colour in India

Use typography instead

Of course there is no reason why you need to use imagery at all. It is perfectly possible to create an incredibly powerful website with just the use of typography.

In fact I would argue that good typography is imagery in its own right.

Seed Conference Website

National Design Museum poster

Avoid being literal

My final piece of advice is probably the most important of all, and is one that website owners struggle to grasp – You do not need to be literal.

The reason so many websites fall back on clichés is because most organisations do not have strong imagery associated with them. When you think of a management consultant, PR agency or chartered accountant, you instinctively think of businessmen in suits shaking hands. That is the literal interpretation of these and many other businesses. In fact so few businesses produce something that can be seen or touched, they are only left with photographic clichés.

However, good imagery is about conveying a sense of personality and character, not a literal representation of what you do. After all prospective visitors understand that if you are a management consultant there will be men in suits. They don’t need a picture to tell them that. What they need to know is the character and personality of your organisation.

Images that convey information and emotion are considerably more powerful. These are the images that engage with your user and draws them in.

Unicef picture of girl holding water pistol to her head

Picture of a cactus in the shape of persons foot

Call to Action

Every good blog post needs a call to action. Mine is to ask you to be more adventurous in your choice of imagery. Do not settle for second rate stock photography but instead experiment with illustration, collage, typography and styling.

However, most of all I would encourage you to avoid being too literal in your choice of imagery. Some of the most powerful imagery can also be the most abstract.